Joshua J. Mark
published on 19 December 2012
Mencius (372-289 BCE) also known as Mang-Tze or Mang-Tzu, was a Confucian philosopher born Mang Ko in the state of Zhou during The Warring States Period in China (476-221 BCE). Latin scholars rendered his name as `Mencius’ in the same way they changed K’ung-fu-Tze to `Confucius’. He was a strict Confucian and the most famous Chinese philosopher after Confucius as he was responsible for the interpretation and dissemination of the earlier philosopher’s ideas. He travelled between the antagonistic states of the period counselling the rulers to abandon their wars and join together to help the people. According to Durant, Mencius taught that “the good ruler would war, not against other countries, but against the common enemy – poverty, for it is out of poverty and ignorance that crime and disorder come” (684). As with the work of a number of other philosophers of this period, Mencius’s efforts were in vain and, disappointed, he abandoned public life to live in relative seclusion with his students until his death.
Born to a poor family, his father died when he was young and his mother, Zhang, raised her son alone. Mencius’ mother is still a model of maternity in China today for the devotion she showed to her son’s welfare. The popular saying, “Mencius’ mother, three moves”, refers to her moving three times in an effort to find the best place to raise her child. They originally lived near a graveyard but she noticed that her son was beginning to emulate the behaviour of the undertaker and professional mourners. She found this unacceptable and so moved into town where the boy began to mimic the activities of the nearby merchants and imitate the sounds from the local slaughterhouse. This, too, she found unworthy of her son and so moved again to a small home near a school. Here, her son began to imitate the behaviour, speech, and discipline of the teachers and so he became a scholar. A further story exemplifying his mother’s virtues tells of a time when she found he was neglecting his studies and so cut in half the cloth she had been steadily weaving. Mencius was shocked at this behaviour but his mother told him it was no more than what he, himself, was doing in not finishing his school work and so rendering it worthless. Mencius learned the lesson and returned to his studies, eventually becoming a student of Confucius’ grandson, Zisi, whom he greatly admired.
He became an official and teacher at the Jixa Academy in the state of Qi and served with distinction until his mother died. At that time he took a leave of absence and buried her with such expense and ceremony that his students, and many others, were scandalized. Mencius merely cited Confucius in this regard and explained that the devotion one owes one’s mother should be expressed fittingly at all times and, certainly, in her funeral. After a period of mourning which lasted three years, he set up his own school of philosophy where he taught Confucian principles. As he lived in a time of continual chaos and war, he, like Plato in Greece, turned his attention to the hope of benefitting the rulers of the separate states by enlightening them through philosophy. He believed that if a ruler were a man of virtue then the people would aspire to that same kind of virtuous life and, further, would enjoy their days more fully in being governed justly.
Although he criticized and condemned the work of his contemporary, Mo Ti, and his concept of Consequentialism, Mencius advocated his own version of that same philosophy. He believed that a good life is brought about by one’s own good behaviour and this proper conduct would then invite the same in others. Like Lao-Tzu and Teng Shih, Mencius believed that “men are by nature good and that the social problem arises not out of the nature of men but out of the wickedness of governments” (Durant, 684). Unlike those philosophers, however, who believed that fewer laws were better than a strict adherence to ritual, Mencius was an ardent follower of the legalistic precepts of Confucius and felt that the best government would be one administrated by the rituals of Confucian philosophers.
Travelling from one state to another, for almost forty years, Mencius attempted to teach his precepts by example and also through lectures. He appealed to the generally accepted understanding of Confucian philosophy and also to historical precedent. Unfortunately, none of the rulers were interested in being the first of the states to lay down arms and practise the benevolence Mencius advocated. Durant writes, “Like the men invited to an ancient wedding feast, the various princes had many excuses for not being rectified. `I have an infirmity,’ said one of them. `I love valor.’ `I have an infirmity,’ said another. `I love wealth.’” (683). Still, like Mo Ti, Mencius persevered until he recognized he could not change men’s hearts against their will. He then devoted himself exclusively to the betterment of the students of his private school. Upon his death, they raised a great monument over his grave in expression of their devotion to the man who had been like a father to them.
372 BCE - 289 BCELife of the Confucian philosopher Mencius (Mang-Tze).